Saturday, 27 January 2018

The Best Books: Rob Penn - The Man who made things out of trees

I think anyone likely to be reading this will have gathered by now that I love the natural world. For the avoidance of doubt: I LOVE it! Everything about it.

Not just being in it and watching it (although that has to come top of the list), but reading about it, learning about it, photographing it, conserving it, working in it and with it, watching other people enjoy it, teaching other people about it and introducing my family to it.

One aspect of my enjoyment of the natural world that I don't often talk about is working with natural materials. While my skill level is very low (hence not talking about it much, but perhaps I should mention it more - watch this space) my enjoyment of working with natural materials, primarily wood is huge. The process of making the few things I have managed to construct from scratch has been addictive; the satisfaction of producing something functional (rarely beautiful from my hands) from something natural is not to be under-estimated. I am fascinated by the unique properties of natural materials, their frequent lack of uniformity. More often than not the best way to make the most of the material is to work with its individuality rather than in forcing your own will upon it and that requires consideration and problem solving.

I first came across Rob Penn when I saw his documentary series on BBC - Tales from the Wild Wood - the story of his project to rejuvenate an old, unmanaged woodland near his home. I was fascinated - I've always loved the idea of woodland work, coppicing and felling trees, splitting firewood, using the harvested material to make and sell things of value and function. I was envious of Rob to say the least, and ached for an opportunity to be involved in something similar myself. So a few years later when presented with an opportunity I did so - setting up The Riddy Wood Project with my brother (more on that another time).

Since that time I've seen glimpses on social media of Rob's involvement in the Small Woods Association, Woodland Trust and similar campaigns promoting sustainable use of British woodlands and trees. As soon as I heard this book was to be released I knew it was one I would like to read - and I did.

There are books which cover a broad topic with a light touch approach, providing for the reader only a scratch-the-surface-deep knowledge of many aspects of the subject. This is not ones of those books. He has taken one, very specific subject - the Ash tree - and drilled deep down to the depths of what there is to know. From the trees biological traits, its geographical distribution and physical attributes to its historical significance and use, and its modern day relevance, Rob has clearly delved deep and provides a fascinating, educational and easily readable account of his journey of personal learning and discovery into the Ash as a tree, a material and a symbol. Literally travelling across continents to fill gaps in his understanding he has left no stone (or perhaps leaf would be more appropriate) unturned in his account of how, what and why the ash holds a special place in his heart, as well as in the hearts of many others across the world.

In doing so he has also opened a doorway into the world of traditional craftsman and skills fighting to remain relevant in a mechanised and hydro-carbonised global economy. What place does a hand turned ash bowl or a steam bent ash chair have in this mass produced, throw-away society? It's place is the one we make for it - these skills will die once and for all if the people who appreciate the tradition and the talent and the art behind them dry up and turn to anonymous and soul-less alternatives. These sort of items aren't the cheap option any longer, but they are are more than just the sum of the parts of which they are constructed or formed; they are a symbol of what has gone before and an icon of what can yet be a sustainable and effective and viable and beautiful resource going forward into the future. 

In case you hadn't already cottoned on, I would thoroughly recommend this book to anyone. Whether your interest lies in the historical, the ecological or the artistic, in engineering, in traditional rural crafts or in general knowledge and interest; there will be something of interest to you.


Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Wild Moments: The UK Cat Conundrum

** 'Wild Moments' posts are going to be a new thing for me in 2018 and will be 
mini-posts (perhaps written during a lunch break) on pretty much anything (relevant 
to the things I write about) which has caught my eye. There is a risk they will 
contain opinions (insert dramatic music here), but I hope they will mostly be 
balanced and well considered and maybe even educational - I live in hope! **

Wild cats in the UK. A divisive but popular topic at the minute and something which has been bugging me for a while. 

The debates on this subject at present focus on the very high profile and quite popular (in some circles) campaign to re-introduce Lynx to the UK. I've read quite a lot of material, from both sides of the argument - although I think there are more than 2 sides to this particular argument to be honest. I've even gone back to cited source material and read scientific papers about other reintroduction schemes else where in Europe to get the true context of the claims being made. I love the natural history of the British Isles and anything which aims to preserve or enhance the 'wildness' of my home countries is as far as I am considered a worthy venture. Further more as an adventurous sort of chap I would welcome the chance to catch of a glimpse of a lynx or for that matter a bear, or wolves or a moose wild in the UK.  

BUT - I do not agree with the sentiment below. It is not time to bring them home... not yet.

Image result for lynx reintroduction

The reason for this is nothing to do with the issues surrounding predation of livestock (although I think this a valid concern which I do not think is being taken seriously enough by those advocating the reintroduction). Nor is it due to concerns about the plans, locations (although I was staggered that Thetford Forest was considered as an option! I'm glad that was withdrawn from the final proposals) or poor attempts at cooperation with 'the other side' - the farming community.

It isn't even to do with a certain level of naivety which I feel has been displayed at various levels of the campaign - my biggest bug bear of which was what seemed to me like a deep seated lack of understanding of the importance of range sizes, population densities and the importance of a genetically sustainable population, but which also included the closed minded disregard of the potential threat, however small they deem it to be, to other peoples livelihoods. 

No, the reason I am against it is that while all this effort (and money!) is being poured into the proposed reintroduction of a species which we as a civilization have already failed, we are STILL failing its closest surviving relative in the UK - the Scottish Wildcat. Depending on which report you read (or believe) there are as few as 25 pure Wildcats left (now solely in Scotland) of a species which used to be far more wide spread throughout the UK. And the story is very similar to that of the Lynx - persecuted as a perceived threat to what is deemed more important. Of course with the Wildcat you also have the added complication and threat of hybridization from domestic cats which are allowed to roam free. Yet another example of humans ability to ignore the consequences of their actions and 'we've been doing it for years and we'll keep doing it'.

So there you have it, my reason for not currently supporting the Lynx reintroduction campaign is that I would much, MUCH rather see the vast expense that will inevitably be poured into the plans if they go ahead go into the pre-existing efforts into saving the wild cat we still have, because otherwise we will be in a position where we've lost that too!

Image result for Scottish wild cat conservation


Friday, 12 January 2018

A Belated Happy New Year; and sharing some plans!

Happy New Year to anyone reading this. I hope you enjoyed whatever break you were able to have, and are looking forward to the year ahead.

Hoping that 2018 brings many more mornings like this i.e. out of doors enjoying them!
Along with just about everyone else a New Year triggers for me a flurry of goal setting, plan making and commitment (some stronger than others). I mentioned on social media the other day that some of my plans for the year required me to be somewhat fitter than I currently am, and I thought I'd flesh out those plans a bit for anyone who is interested (recognising that that may be no-one at all). This is for two reasons 1) because it is by far and away the most exciting thing I have to write about at the minute and 2) if I write them down now it will add to my motivation later in the year when I am trying to follow through with those plans. As such plans always seem, at some point, to prove inconvenient, difficult or hard, any extra motivation would be welcome.

I'll come to that in a minute. I also mentioned that I wanted to try and post content, particularly images, which are more representative of EVERYTHING I get up (which is relevant to the 'wild guy' narrative anyway). Don't get me wrong, all the images I post are mine, but I am often guilty of only posting the ones which I think are good in their own right and as such the story that they tell is often a little disjointed. I'd like that story to become a bit more complete, and that may involve posting some images which seem of a lower standard but tell the story better. It still isn't going to be my personal life, photo's of the office and such like, but it may be ones which on the face of it seem ... worse, but I'll try and explain the story they tell as I go.

My plans for the year then. Basically my plans centre on the desire to make 2018 the year, hopefully the first of many, where I stop saying 'that would be cool / great / brilliant' and start saying 'that WAS amazing / incredible / unforgettable!' and so on. In other words I want it to be the year I start doing rather than dreaming. Many of the plans for the year are the culmination of years, in a few cases decades, of dreaming of adventures. I won't set out detailed plans now because I'll be writing about them all individually both at the planning stages and at the fun bit (although I find the planning fun too if I'm honest).

Therefore in an approximate chronological order (which is subject to change!), in 2018 I will:
- Climb Snowdon
The Ystwyth in Mid-Wales. All being well at some
point this year this view will include me, mid-river!
- Visit the Outer Hebrides; specifically fly into the only commercial airport in the world where the runway is on a beach - Barra - the southern most island in the Outer Hebrides island chain. (Flying this route was my dream job when I was a teenager. This trip is a birthday present for a 'milestone' birthday this year - thank you to my beautiful wife and my parents-in-law for making this possible)
- Visit the Isle of Skye for a family holiday
- Hopefully climb Ben Nevis again on the way to Skye.
- Walk / Swim / Raft from 'source to sea' down the River Ystwyth in Mid-Wales.
- Do the UK Three Peaks with my brothers

That will do to be going along with, there are a few others which have bigger question marks hanging over them at the minute, mostly just down to available spare time, so I won't add them yet but hopefully there may be a few extras to add to this list before years end.

The fitness concern is largely centered on the Three Peaks attempt. I don't just want to complete it, I want to complete it well and if not easily then at least without serious discomfort. It's for this reason that I will be trying to make the most of working in the Peak District and actually going out for a walk, usually up a steep hill, before work or during lunch breaks and so forth. To provide one more level of motivation I signed up to a few 'challenges issued by UK outdoor magazines;
- the #walk1000miles 2018 challenge (Country Walking Magazine), and
- the #everestanywhere challenge (Trail Magazine).

Both should be eminently do-able provided I pull my finger out and actually start making better use of my time... what this essentially amounts to is me learning not to sleep as much! I'll leave this there for now - if all this comes off there will be some stories to tell, pictures to share and hopefully maybe even a little inspiration to give. Not that I expect anyone to be inspired by my efforts, but rather I hope that you may be inspired by the places I visit and the enjoyment I hope to derive from the journeys to get there!